Thursday, May 10, 2007

Some Lessons from Harvard on How to Improve Teaching

Za just forwarded me this NYTimes article announcing Harvard's new initiative to put greater emphasis on teaching.

You’d be stupid if you came to Harvard for the teaching,” said Mr. Billings, who will graduate this spring and then go to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. “You go to a liberal arts college for the teaching. You come to Harvard to be around some of the greatest minds on earth.”

And that is pretty much how the thinking has gone here at Harvard for several decades. As one of the world’s most renowned research universities, Harvard is where academic superstars are continually expected to revolutionize their fields of knowledge. Cutting-edge research is emphasized, and recognized with tangible rewards: tenure, money, prestige, prizes, fame.

But now, with strong support from the university’s interim president, Derek Bok, nine prominent professors are leading an effort to rethink the culture of undergraduate teaching and learning. Headed by Theda Skocpol, a social scientist, the group has issued a report calling for sweeping institutional change, including continuing evaluation and assessment of teaching and learning, and a proposal that teaching be weighed equally with contributions to research in annual salary adjustments.

I just returned from a wonderful lunch with SteveG and one of our brighest majors, wherein we talked a great deal about good pedagogy. We were telling our student how poorly trained any of us are for our job: teaching. While we landed at Liberal Arts Colleges (LACs), we didn't get put in the LAC track in graduate school that emphasized responsible pedagogy. No one taught us how to put together a syllabus, how to accomodate different learning styles among students, how to create meaningful assignments that do more than encourage memorization, etc. In fact, as SteveG pointed out, the best and brightest faculty that we gravitated to in Grad school were those who hated teaching, who saw teaching as a real hindrance to his or her "real" work, and who, consequently, sucked at teaching.

It is interesting how much teacher training is involved in non-higher ed public school certification. And yet, parents and students shell out lots of money to attend colleges, such as Harvard, where the teaching is downright lousy. Hell, there are lots of lousy teachers at the LACs too, who are supposed to stress excellent teaching.

What I most admire about Harvard's current task force proposal is the shift to reward faculty for good teaching.

There are plenty of excellent teachers at Harvard, Professor Skocpol said. But some receive little reward for their exceptional talent in the classroom, save for the occasional teaching award. To win tenure, junior faculty members strive to distinguish themselves through research as the best in their fields.

Professor Skocpol’s report quotes one graduate teaching fellow, a scientist, who won the prestigious Levenson Teaching Prize: “I earn high praise (and more money) for every paper or academic achievement while every teaching achievement earns a warning of how I should not wander off research.”

Until now, there has been no systematic effort to tie salary levels to teaching performance. “When we made presentations to businessmen about this, they couldn’t comprehend that teaching wasn’t connected to salary,” Professor Ulrich said.

While we certainly do reward good teaching here at my college more than Harvard would; we could do a lot more. In fact, in my perfect world, I would add a little of the free market approach to the Provost's office as a way of reshaping the academic program in a way that encourages intellectual excellence. At present, we spend far too much time trying to build consensus on good teaching, on good advising, on our curriculum. The fact is that faculty will never agree on these matters and trying to get everyone on the same page is a losing battle. We aren't just going to make nice and commit to a overarching image of what makes our college great.

But, there are faculty around doing the kind of work--i.e. innovative course design, service learning courses, team taught courses, courses with travel/field research built in, doing active research with students, etc.--that epitomize what many of the administrators would like Gettysburg to look like (at least according to the Strategic Planning documents). So, it seems that one way to drive change here would be to reward, and really reward, faculty who are doing what we think best embodies the mission of of this college. As it stands now--like at many colleges--there are not a lot of incentives for creative and innovative teaching (outside of intrinsic desire) and there are NO DISINCENTIVES for bad behavoir.

UPDATE: SteveG just put a fantastic blog post on how poorly trained we are for teaching.